Observation: There's no dumb idea that can't be made worse and that's especially true with one of the dumbest ideas of all time, the open-plan office.

Quick recap: There's a near-total lack of scientific evidence that open-plan offices increase productivity. Quite the contrary. Multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies show that open-plan offices increase stress and illness, reduce workers' ability to concentrate, and substantially reduce worker productivity.

Unlike other management fads (which can be dropped once everyone realizes the emperor is naked), the move to an open-plan office represents huge sunk costs that are not so easily shed, and certainly not without making the fad's proponents look like idiots.

Given that careers now hinge on the faith-based notion that open-plan offices are a productivity panacea, it's not at all surprising that some companies are now choosing to double down rather than walk it back.

According to The Wall Street Journal, a privately conducted survey of 138 employers found that by 2021, 52 percent -- slightly more than half -- plan to replace open-plan desks with "first-come, first-served desks, plus additional workspaces with names like huddle rooms and touchdown spaces."

The WSJ article cites the example of the 70-person Minneapolis-based architecture firm Perkins + Will, which has 52 "adjustable sit-stand desks." Since this type of work environment may very well be your future, here's an exact description so you can get steel yourself to the apparently inevitable:

Anyone who leaves a desk for more than two hours is expected to pack up and wipe it down with sanitary wipes from one of several office-supply carts. [One employee] totes a backpack around the office with her work gear. Others carry oversize purses and briefcases.

Since there's no evidence whatsoever that we are anywhere close to the long-heralded "paperless office," this means that everyone must now imitate the homeless people who carry their belongings around with them, but without the convenience of a shopping cart.

The requirement to lug everything adds yet another health risk to the many already associated with open-plan designs. According to  the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, "improperly used backpacks may injure muscles and joints and can lead to severe back, neck, and shoulder pain, as well as posture problems."

Aching backs aside, the WSJ article--as typical with articles discussing open-plan and beyond--cites no evidence that deskless offices make workers more productive, probably because none exists.

Similarly, the "evidence" that workers willingly accept the deskless office is limited to a single source, like a marketing manager at Perkins + Will who said: "I became a total convert, skeptic to believer, once I got the burden of paper out of the way."

Beyond the fact that a single quote does not a scientific study make, it's impossible to imagine that an employee of a firm being featured in a WSJ article as an exemplar of the deskless office would be stupid enough to say something negative to the reporter.

Fortunately for those of us who like to know the truth, the WSJ article backhandedly suggests how employees really feel about becoming deskless. Two years ago, the consumer goods company Unilever moved to the deskless model with 1,200 desks for 1,500 employees.

However, unlike many companies that implement open-plan offices, Unilever has a "work from anywhere" policy. The article dryly notes "the shift to unassigned seating has led to more use of the policy."

Well, duh.

What's ironic is that a prime reason for open-plan offices (and presumably deskless offices) is to make the workplace a "home away from home" and therefore a place where you'd actually want to hang out. Nobody seems to have noticed that lacking your own work area is the equivalent, home-wise, of sleeping on the couch.

Beware if you complain, though, because proponents of the deskless office are trying to buttonhole resisters as a bunch of aging Luddites. As one "managing director of enterprise workplace services" (i.e., a person whose career credibility is now tied to the deskless concept) told the WSJ:

We have five generations coexisting in the workplace, from the traditionalist who has aspired to a corner office for their entire career, to the millennial who couldn't care less where they sit.

Take that, aging Baby Boomers!

There's only one problem: Millennials dislike open-plan offices even more than previous generations.

According to a recent study conducted by Oxford Economics (a research firm associated with Oxford University), what Millennials want most is "less noise in the workplace" and "the ability to focus and work without interruptions." Far from "not caring where they sit" Millennials are "more likely to say noise distracts them from work, and in general are more annoyed by ambient noises in the office."

It's hard not to feel sorry for Millennials and post-Millennials who are apparently destined to suffer through this fad, just as Gen-Xers and Boomers suffered through the equally ludicrous cubicle era. 

Not to worry, though.

The next fad--the virtual workplace--is just around the corner and the true office of the future will likely look more like an online game (Fortnite anyone?) than the tricked-out prison cafeteria that's the deskless office. So get those avatars ready! You're gonna need 'em!

Meanwhile, I strongly suggest screaming bloody murder the first time some HR bonehead suggests your company needs deskless offices. Ask loudly and often: Do we really want to sink all that money into a management fad that we'll be stuck with for the next 10 years? 

Published on: May 16, 2018
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